Expat Paradox

Expatriate or more commonly known as “expat”.  There are people that temporarily or permanently reside in a foreign country that is other than their citizenship.  Most large cities have communities where expats live. This phenomenon has gotten me thinking about why do expats gather together in areas.

Living in America we would not call them expats…we would call them immigrants.  But living here even I gravitated toward the expat area to reside while I live here.  Why?  Shall we explore this and the paradox that I have found that exists?

So when I first came to Hanoi, Vietnam, I stayed at a hotel that was no where near the expat area.  It was a business hotel that was not centrally located.  I did not know any better.  It was great because wherever I went I was surrounded by the culture of Vietnam.  Different language, smells, foods…It can be stimulus overload.  What I learned is that after a couple of weeks I became desensitized to those things.  What I craved was familiarity.  I craved my own culture a bit and things that I am comfortable with.  I had not been to the expat area here prior to my apartment search. That area in Hanoi is called Tay Ho or West Lake.  What I will say is that the moment I arrived I was like this is where I am going to live.  Why?  Partly I think it was because I saw variety of food so I would not have to choose Vietnamese everyday.  Part of was there were more western things to buy and do (e.g. Wine, Crossfit, yoga, sugary cereals!).  There was also a part that I saw people that looked like me.  There was a since of my own culture. Is that bad?  Is that good?  I cannot answer that question but what I can say is that I understand why groups of people, expats/immigrants, do it.  All humans gravitate toward familiarity.  May it be religion, culture, traditions, sexual orientation, moral systems, languages and/or race.  When we have a sense of familiarity it puts us at ease and with ease comes this sense (and in my opinion a false sense) of security. We believe those like us will protect us.  A community.

When someones speaks a different language we feel a bit uncomfortable.  If some practices a different belief we are a bit uncomfortable.  If someone eats something that is not normal to you (e.g. dog, snake, pigs blood..) we are a bit uncomfortable.  This is not a bad thing.  It is the reality of who we are.  Accept it.  But because we are a bit uncomfortable and seek a bit of our own community it does not mean we do not want to be there. I have loved every minute here in Vietnam.  I have heard everyone say that.  I would suspect that the “expats” living in America would say the same.

So on the flip side of this is a paradox. I have spoken to several people both male and female.  When you are living in the expat area you are asked two questions:

  1.  Where are you from?
  2. How long are you here for?

These are harmless right?  Well not really.  In the terms of “expats” there are many kinds.  I am American which means there are less of me than lets say British or Australians.  I am a minority within the expat community.  Ha!  Not that they are not nice to me or anything.  We get along famously, but there are cultural differences. They are, again, more comfortable with their own culture.  The second question is a bit more of a conundrum.  What they are really asking  you is: “How long are you going to be here because I am not going to invest in someone for the short term?”  No really.  I have talked to many people and specifically with women who find it a challenge to be let into social circles within the expat community because they do not want to emotionally invest in someone that is going to leave.  A quote: “I tell everyone I am going to live here forever so they will let me in.”

So there is this paradox (I really hope I am using this word correctly:).  We want familiarity and community but may still be rejected within that community based on where you are from and length of stay.  I find that so hard.  But when I look at the evidence it is so true.  I have a couple girls from work that I do things with and hand out with especially at work.  But outside of that and the other Pulse volunteers I have not had anyone want to invest in a friendship with me.  Then it all hit me.  I tell everyone I am leaving in six months (now 1 month) so they do not invest.  It is what it is, but it all makes sense now.

It is all learning.  I tend not to think along this path.  With social media I feel I can stay connected to anyway, but I understand why they do not.

What will I do with this learning?  First I will accept people for being human and fallible.  Second I will rewire my brain to think of “immigrants” as expats and understand why there are large communities.  The largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam is in Westchester, CA. Why so?  Familiarity, culture, language, security…  That is all we want.  One day I hope we can see ourselves as one species but until then lets celebrate that diversity and take a moment to explore those expat areas near you and learn a thing or two.

Cao Dai Temple
Chip Maker
Herb Specialist
Religion of all Religions
Mekong Delta
Rice Field
Snakes in a jar
Traditional Home



  1. A great blog, and you raise some interesting points. I have also started to look at why there is a perceived difference between ex-pats and migrants…
    And I love the insight into the lack of investment for short-time stayers. That could be a good learning for future PULSE volunteers.
    Enjoy the last month!

  2. I can identify with your experience. Expats don’t want to invest time with those whose assignment are short. Expats are also
    perceived to have ‘fat wallets’ because the ‘real expats’ in Africa are paid hefty allowances.

  3. Great post and so true. We have exactly the same situation here in Rwanda. In my NGO there are lots of Americans who come for short stints. Interestingly, I found myself on the other side recently when I met a new expat who is only here for a month. I realised as we were chatting that I was already thinking to myself that I wasn’t going to invest much time in that relationship because the person was going to leave quite quickly. I admire those here who continue to make an effort with new, short term expats but don’t feel any animosity to those who don’t. It is an interesting situation.

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